Our Power is Rivers

Published 10/13/2023  |  American Rivers

Condit Dam, Washington | Photo by Thomas OKeefe

By Kyle Smith

There is an ongoing debate in the Pacific Northwest around whether hydropower as a whole is “good” or “bad”. But this conversation misses important detail and nuance.

There are thousands of dams blocking rivers across the Northwest. Many dams provide energy, transportation, flood control, and irrigation. But many are causing more harm than good – and they are falling apart. As a society we are making choices about the costs and benefits of dams: Which ones can be operated in a more environmentally friendly and economically viable way? And which dams need to be removed?

Dams harm rivers. They can destroy fish and wildlife habitat, degrade water quality, and turn free-flowing rivers into slow moving reservoirs that emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes climate change. Dams in the Pacific Northwest have been a main cause of salmon extinction and a source of painful injustice for the region’s Tribal Nations.

American Rivers has always taken a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach to dams and hydropower. While we lead the movement to remove outdated dams, we are also a founding member of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, working to improve the operations of dams whose continued operation is important for our energy supply and economy. For the past several years, we’ve also been working with the hydropower industry in the “Uncommon Dialogue on Hydropower, River Restoration, and Public Safety” – finding common ground on plans to retrofit and rehabilitate dams that still serve an important purpose and remove dams that pose a safety risk.

Simply put: American Rivers is ensuring our nation prioritizes healthy rivers, whether that’s by making hydro dams more river- and fish-friendly, maximizing the performance and efficiency of dams, and removing dams whose costs outweigh their benefits.

So, what does this look like in the Pacific Northwest where 50 percent of our annual energy generation comes from hydro? Major dams, including those on the Columbia River, helped build our world-class economy and will continue to support our vibrant region. But we must take a hard look at dams that are causing far more harm than good

The lower four Snake River dams, which stretch between Tri-Cities, WA and Lewiston, ID, were constructed between 1957 and 1972. These dams provide around 900 average megawatts of power — around 4% of the Northwest’s energy generation. They also provide irrigation for crops grown around the Tri-Cities, as well as transportation for barge traffic between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston. While the services the lower four Snake River dams provide are valuable to surrounding communities, those services can be replaced with alternative technologies. Breaching the earthen portion of the dams is the best solution we have to solve the significant impacts the dams are having on salmon, steelhead, killer whales, Tribal Nations, and economies that rely on these species.

Unlike the mainstem Columbia dams, the lower four Snake River dams are “run of the river” projects that do not provide flood control and store relatively little water in the reservoirs behind each dam. In summer months, those reservoirs bake in the hot sun, raising water temperatures and creating harmful conditions for cold water dependent salmon and steelhead. In 2015, warm water in the lower Snake was responsible for killing over 95% of the year’s adult sockeye salmon run. Impacts on juvenile salmon are harder to measure, but conservative estimates are that upwards of 50% of juvenile salmon die between Lower Granite Dam on the Snake and Bonneville Dam on the Columbia during their journey to the ocean, and that figure is likely much greater in years when water temperatures rise above 70 degrees.

As flows decrease and reservoirs continue to warm with climate change, the incidence of toxic algae outbreaks will increase as well, creating a dangerous and potentially lethal threat for humans, our pets, fish, and wildlife alike. When algae and other organic matter decays in the reservoirs behind these dams, it emits methane- a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Further, as climate change causes precipitation to shift to spring, with less water in the river in winter and summer months, the lower four Snake River dams are providing power when we need it the least- when all other hydro projects in the Columbia Basin are producing maximum power as well and demand is at a low point during the year.

The power output from the lower four Snake River dams is also relatively minor compared to other hydro projects in the Columbia Basin.

Granite Dam on the Snake River | Photo: Army Corps of Engineers

Granite Dam on the Snake River | Photo: Army Corps of Engineers

As we mentioned before, the lower four Snake River dams combined produce an average of around 900 megawatts. Compare that with John Day Dam on the mainstem Columbia 50 miles east of Hood River, which by itself produces around 1,200 average megawatts, and you begin to see why these four dams are the target of so much attention. Four times the negative impacts from dams and their harmful slackwater reservoirs, for less power than John Day Dam alone just doesn’t make sense as we envision a new clean energy future.

Finally, no form of energy can be considered clean if it leads to the extirpation of as many species as the lower four Snake River dams continue to cause, particularly when you consider the value those species have for Tribal Nations that have lived in the Columbia Basin since time immemorial. The American Fisheries Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Trout Unlimited, and many other science-based organizations all recognize that breaching the lower four Snake River dams must be the centerpiece action for restoring salmon populations in the Columbia Basin.

Tribal Nations across the Northwest are leading this initiative to breach the lower four Snake River dams because of these negative impacts. The largest impact being to the salmon populations; their dwindling numbers directly impact the culture and traditions of tribal members and their future generations. In addition, with the harm placed on salmon by these dams, treaties made between the U.S. Government and the Tribes are being violated. We have a moral and ethical obligation to uphold our treaty promises and to save Snake Basin salmon and steelhead from extinction.

As we work to develop a bold new clean energy future for the Pacific Northwest, hydropower will continue to be an important part of our generation portfolio. When measured on the whole, it becomes clear that the lower four Snake River dams cannot be a part of that vision. We must build a system that is reliable, resilient, and equitable. We must continue working together to achieve a future of healthy rivers, abundant salmon, and affordable, reliable clean energy.


This post first appeared at www.americanrivers.org.

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